China’s Guilded Age

In 1873, Mark Twain wrote a book satirizing greed and political corruption in post-Civil War America. Instead of calling the book “Golden Age” the less worthy “Gilded Age” was chosen since it represents only a thin layer of gold coated over a base metal. Shortly after the publication of the book, the word “Gilded Age” because synonymous with graft, materialsim and corruption in public life.

Back in 1994, The Atlantic’s Yin Huangxiao came back to China after 10 years in the USA and wrote “China’s Gilded Age“.

A distant cousin who was a high school teacher until 1986 told me modestly that he had made “a little money” by opening a factory that produces bristle brushes for export to America. He drove me to his new summer house in his new Mercedes-Benz 500SEL, one of his three luxury cars. “This is China’s Gilded Age,” a former colleague of mine commented sarcastically. “These Chinese Carnegies and Rockefellers are more successful than their American counterparts — they made more money within a shorter time.”

More recently, in 2007, David Baskin from CBC news wrote that “China’s Gilded Age of Capitalism“.

It is true that China is still governed by the Communist Party, but I have never been in a more capitalistic environment in my life. Ruthless competition is taken for granted; that economic success should be rewarded with wealth is a given; and that upward mobility is possible for those who are smart and hard working is widely believed – the Chinese equivalent of the American dream.

Baskin does write that:

… and that upward mobility is possible for those who are smart and hard working is widely believed – the Chinese equivalent of the American dream.

This last comment doesn’t seem to accurately represent local folks. The local sentiment seems to be that if you are well-connected, then you’ll be fine. However, there isn’t much hope for the average person to be successful. The key difference between the “gilded age” in China now, and the “gilded age” in America 150 years ago, is that Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt were all born poor, and managed to work their way up. In China, the sentiment seems to be the strength of your connection to the government determines how much you can earn.

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